Tag Archives: Formic acid

Ants as Native Californian Cuisine

California Indians caught ants by spreading a damp skin or fresh-peeled bark over ant hills, which immediately attracted ants to the surface (Sutton 1988). When the skin or bark was covered with ants, it was carefully removed and shaken into a container where they were confined until dead, and then they were sun-dried and stored (Bodenheimer 1951).

The Nisenan and Achumawi were known to eat ants (Olmsted and Stewart 1978, Wilson and Towne 1978). Mono Lake Paiute ate the larvae of ants (Sutton 1988). Ant eggs, pupae, larvae, and adults are all edible and eaten by many aboriginal cultures worldwide (Bodenheimer 1951), thus it is likely the California Indians ate all these life stages.

Surprise Valley Paiute gathered ants “early in the morning when they were all bunched on the top of the hill” (Sutton 1988). Since ants carry their pupae to the top of the mound in the morning when the sun hits it, this may suggest the Paiute were aware of this activity and exploited it to easily collect the pupae, which are probably the preferred ant food. Alternatively, the gathering of ants was conducted in the early morning since they were less active then. Ants were frequently collected during the frozen winter (Sutton 1988), perhaps for the same reason, or since other food was scarce at the time.

Some Indians dug out ants, larvae, and pupae (the latter two being probably erroneously called eggs), and winnowed them to boil alone or with other foods (Sutton 1988). Ants were sometimes ground into flour for storage (Sutton 1988). Ants were preferred even to grasshoppers by the Northern Paiute since they contained more fat (Sutton 1988). Ants were killed with live coals then eaten dry, or stored to later thicken soups (Sutton 1988).

The larvae and adults of carpenter ants (Camponotus spp) were enjoyed by California Indians, according to John Muir (1972). The heads of the adults were bitten off and spat out and the “tickly acid body” eaten with enjoyment (Muir 1972). Carpenter ants were dug out of their nest early in the morning when it was still cold by the Western Shoshone (Sutton 1988), perhaps allowing gathering with fewer stings. The ants were winnowed from the soil with a basket, killed with hot coals in a parching tray, and boiled into a mush (Sutton 1988). These ants are very large: probably the reason the Indians preferred them. However, their nests harbor fewer individuals than those of smaller ants.

A few weeks ago, I collected a few dozen carpenter ant workers and drones. I broke apart the their wood log nest, and put down wet paper towels over the swarm, which they clung to, biting. I then flicked them off the paper towels into a cooler with a few inches of cold water, where they drowned or were cooled into immobility. I fried them in a pan with a few drops of oil on medium for about a minute, then ate them whole and plain. The workers have a great lime flavor and a nice crunch. The drones don’t have that zingy flavor (lacking formic acid glands and stingers), but taste mild and nutty. Overall, they were a great snack that was easy to collect.

Honeypot ants (Myrmecocystus spp.) are found in the deserts of Southern California, and are known to have been eaten by Southwestern US Indians and Mexican Indians (Bodenheimer 1951, Sutton 1988). Specialized “nurse” or “replete” workers of this ant, living in special chambers of the nest, store “honey,” or a very sweet solution, in their greatly engorged abdomens to regurgitate to other ants in times of famine (Bodenheimer 1951, Sutton 1988). These nurse ants were collected by Indians and eaten or alcohol or medicine (Bodenheimer 1951). I wouldn’t try to go dig up a nest without some serious expertise on their nest structure though. One professional entomologist in Arizona spent 12 hours digging an 8 foot trench in the desert to get just a few handfuls of repletes! If anything, this testifies to the supreme ecological knowledge of hunter-gatherers, especially regarding the hymenopterous (bees, wasps, and ants) nesting and reproductive biology.


Bodenheimer, F.S. 1951. Insects as human food. Dr. W. Junk Publishers, The Hague, The Netherlands.

Muir, J. 1972. My first summer in the Sierra. Norman S. Berg, Publisher, Sellanraa, GA.

Olmsted, D.L. and O.C. Stewart. 1978. Achumawi. In Handbook of North American Indians Vol. 8: California, eds. W.C. Sturtevant and R.F. Heizer, p. 228. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Sutton, M.Q. 1988. Insects as food: aboriginal entomophagy in the Great Basin. Ballena Press anthropological papers: no. 33.

Wilson, N.L. and A.H. Towne. 1978. Nisenan. In Handbook of North American Indians Vol. 8: California, eds. W.C. Sturtevant and R.F. Heizer, p. 390. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Eating Nettles

Ringtail Cats

Stinging nettles (genus Urtica) are widespread in Northern Hemisphere temperate regions and are all edible. Urtica is simple to ID; just touch it and if you immediately feel a burning, it’s a nettle! (Ur = burn in Latin, and urtica = nettle in Latin). The burning sensation tapers off in severity after a few minutes, but its after-effects (particularly felt when the afflicted part is put under hot water, or subjected to heat) can last up to a whole day. The chemical is formic acid (the same chemical in ant stings), which is injected by tiny hollow hairs covering all the aboveground plant parts.

If you don’t want to touch it, just look closely for densely packed hairs on the leaves, which become larger and more sparse on the stems, almost appearing like spines. But that’s not a fail-safe ID method unless you have otherwise familiarized yourself with its…

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